Leaders, Political Parties and Tribal Culture

In my view modern-day Canadian political parties have something in common with Germanic war tribes of the Dark Ages.

Ordinarily, I’d follow such a provocative opening paragraph with some sort of witty satiric barb along the lines of, “Just as Germanic tribes marauded around Europe plundering and looting Roman cites, today’s political parties maraud around Parliament, plundering and looting taxpayers.”

And while that would be hilarious, I’m not going to do that this time because it would be off my main point.

The less funny comparison I want to make here is that primitive Germanic tribes and Canadian political parties possess the same hierarchical structure.

Both are relatively small, closely-knit groups, both are made up of individuals who are roughly equal in social class and both are led by strong leaders.

And here’s the main similarity I want to focus on: both primitive tribes and political parties have a hard time choosing new leaders.

Indeed, those ancient German tribes had such a hard time finding new leaders, they eventually gave up trying. Historians tell us when a German chieftain died or was killed in battle, his tribe simply dissolved, with his followers moving on to coalesce around some other warlord.

Canada’s political parties, on the other hand, typically survive a leader’s downfall or resignation, meaning they have to endure the arduous process we call a “leadership race”.

And what makes that process so arduous is the tribal nature of political parties.

After all, powerful tribal leaders, whether they command a war band or a political party, rarely allow potential successors to gain strength or influence or prominence within the group, since that can lead to boiling tensions.

Recall, for instance, how Paul Martin’s impatience for the leadership crown –  he was the clear “heir apparent” to former Prime Minister Jean Chretien – led to a protracted Liberal Party civil war, with Liberals dividing into two bitterly opposing factions: “Martinites” vs. “Chretienites.”

So to avoid such ego-driven strife, political party leaders usually discourage the emergence of obvious successors. You have a party chief and then you have everyone else.

What’s more, the demands of party discipline require MPs to be like tribal warriors who obediently and loyally follow orders, meaning it’s hard for them to advertise their leadership skills; being a good follower isn’t the same as being a good leader.

The upshot of all this is that when a party is forced to find a new leader, it’s often difficult for that party’s membership to evaluate the potential replacements.

Members of the Conservative Party are struggling with this dynamic right now in their ongoing leadership race.

Yes lots of names are floating around out there as possible successors to Stephen Harper, but who’s the overwhelming favorite?

No one, that’s who.

By the way, it’s this uncertainty associated with political leadership races which might help Thomas Mulcair keep his job as NDP boss.

And believe me he needs all the help he can get.

I mean, after his party’s disastrous showing in the last federal election, Mulcair is hardly the “NDP Man of the Hour” right now; I’m pretty sure lots of frustrated New Democrats would love to have a new leader (preferably a beardless one) at the helm.

Yet, who can be that leader?

Like the Conservatives, the NDP has no obvious “second in command” waiting in the wings.

So New Democrats, who might be wary about opening up a possibly divisive leadership race and who can’t visualize a better replacement, might be predisposed to keep Mulcair.

At least he’s a safe and known quantity, right?

Anyway, maybe one day our political parties will evolve beyond Dark Ages-style organizational behaviour.

But I doubt it.

(This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.)

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